I knew exactly what I was getting on Sunday morning. I woke up, made myself breakfast, drank a glass of water, and settled in on my couch for hours of football hagiography. It’s what every NFL Sunday broadcast does and, admittedly, isn’t that much different than what every TV sports broadcast does. It’s by design. Come for the heroes, stay for the highlights. And today’s hero, I knew before I even turned on my TV, would be Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It had to be him, because Sunday was almost certainly Roethlisberger’s last regular-season game. He has three Super Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl wins, more than 400 touchdown passes, more than 64,000 yards passing, and is expected to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But as the hours of Roethlisberger remembrances rolled by me—the sit-down CBS interview with Bill Cowher, his first NFL coach, to reminisce about winning a Super Bowl together; the gauzy ESPN package that builds toward Roethlisberger winning his second Super Bowl on the late-game drive that required a perfect pass and the perfect catch from Santonio Holmes; the endless panning to fans with signs proclaiming “Thank you Ben,” and in-game announcers waxing poetic about his legacy—I couldn’t stop thinking about what wasn’t there, what never came up, the story that always seemed to be unmentioned or off-screen, minus the occasional stray comment about life off the field, or mistakes.
In July 2009, a woman sued Roethlisberger in a Nevada court, saying the QB raped her in his Lake Tahoe hotel room, where she worked as a hotel employee. Eight months later, law enforcement in Milledgeville, Ga., investigated him after a college student there said he sexually assaulted her in a bar bathroom. What followed ended in no criminal charges, as the few pieces that have mentioned this at all made sure to say, but they leave out everything that came afterward: the horrifying dossier of documents released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the local district attorney telling Roethlisberger on national TV to grow up, the many fans who wanted him gone, the Sports Illustrated article that painted Roethlisberger as, to borrow a piece of Pittsburgh-ese, a real jagoff. This is why, for more than a decade, an unwritten rule has guided fans and media who want to talk about one of the league’s longest-tenured signal callers: Stick to the football.
I know all this, practically from memory, because I come from a long line of Steelers fans. My parents were Steelers fans. Their parents were Steelers fans. Before that, well, most of my family was living in eastern Europe, so being a Steelers fan wasn’t an option for them, yet, but I’m pretty sure my great-grandfather, who already was in Pittsburgh, was a Steelers fan. I grew up hearing about the Immaculate Reception, learning the names of every player on the Steel Curtain defense, and believing that if any family could be trusted to do the right thing, it was the Rooneys, who owned the Steelers. I don’t remember ever not liking the Steelers or even not knowing who they were. I simply always have. The righteousness of the Pittsburgh Steelers was as clear in my moral universe as God, the angels, and a Primanti Bros. sandwich with fries on the inside.
I lost that ability to have any sort of moral clarity around the Steelers, or the NFL, or sports, somewhere around March 5, 2010. Over the years, I have watched some football fans forgive and forget everything Roethlisberger did. I have experienced the other football fans who, at the mere mention of me saying I follow the Steelers, yell at me that my quarterback sucks or boo me to my face. (Though I suspect most of that vitriol is not because sports fans, as a whole, are concerned about sexual violence. I suspect they just like having an excuse to be mean to fans of other teams, particularly ones with large fanbases and a history of success.) I don’t talk much—certainly not as much you would expect a person working in sports media—about the football team I most closely follow. For me, it stopped being as simple as caring about a team that entertained me. It became a matter of wondering why I care so much about something that has, time and time again, disappointed me. And why do I keep coming back?
It would be convenient if I said all my doubts began with Roethlisberger, but the halo of light around the Pittsburgh Steelers began fading in 2007, when Alan Schwarz began his reporting on concussions in the NFL and their link to long-term brain damage. In unfolding story after story, Schwarz would build a case that argued the NFL had known about concussions and, instead of taking action, deployed a phalanx of its own doctors to conduct research that downplayed the issue of head injuries. As recently as 2015, when linebacker Chris Borland retired out of concerns about head injuries, Steelers team neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon said the concern about brain damage, “although real, is being over-exaggerated and being extrapolated to youth football and to high school football.”
It is no coincidence that the case against the NFL ran through Pittsburgh, with Bennet Omalu discovering CTE in the brain of a member of that 1970s Steelers dynasty, Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who famously started 150 consecutive games. He died in 2002, at the age of 50 and later was among the first diagnosed with CTE. As Schwarz’s reporting on concussion expanded and more outlets joined in, it was impossible to ignore the growing roster of ex-Steelers on the list: offensive linemen Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, and Ralph Wenzel. As the stories came together into a massive class-action lawsuit against the league, I counted the ex-Steelers in the lawsuit and felt little surprise.
Why did I keep watching football, even then? Part of me wanted to be open the idea that football could change and be better about concussions, especially since the NFL, as well as college, high school, and even peewee football, clearly weren’t going away. Part of me felt that even if these organizations were run by millionaire and billionaire failsons, I could still be excited about the players. It did not make sense to hold the NFL’s many problems against people trying to do their jobs and earn their paychecks. And part of me could not ignore the firing synapses in my brain that simply enjoyed watching football and derived pleasure from talking to other people about it, especially the Steelers.
The Steelers circa 2009 had plenty of players to be excited about: Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, Ryan Clark. They also had a young quarterback who was expected to return the team to its 1970s level of glory. A year and a half after Schwarz began his concussion reporting, the Steelers won their second Super Bowl of the Ben Roethlisberger era. There was no reason to think there wouldn’t be many, many more titles to follow.
The Lake Tahoe lawsuit came first. It was filed in Nevada’s Washoe County. The woman said she worked at Harrah’s hotel in Lake Tahoe, where she worked her way up from a hotel shift manager to being an executive casino host. She said Roethlisberger had sexually assaulted her about a year earlier, while he was in town for a celebrity golf tournament. She went to his room, she said in her lawsuit, because he had asked her to fix his TV and no one else was available to take care of it.
She sued Roethlisberger for assault, sexual assault and battery, false imprisonment, false pretenses, fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She also sued multiple Harrah’s employees for what she said were their roles in preventing a thorough Harrah’s investigation, including telling lies about her. Roethlisberger’s lawyer, David Cornwall, would go on to say he had emails and text messages that proved the woman wasn’t acting like a rape victim afterward, as reported by the Tahoe Daily Tribune at the time, and he even went as far as to say that her lawyer should be disbarred for representing a person with a fake claim, per TMZ.
But nothing sums up the prevailing mood, at least as I recall it, better than the Bleacher Report headlines: The Lawsuit Against Ben Roethlisberger Has Too Many Shady Facts to the Story; Big Ben Accused Of Rape: For The Love Of Money?; and one article saying the allegations could be true, headlined, The Ben Roethlisberger Allegations From A Female Perspective. (I realize it is good journalist practice to link out to these articles. But they all contain the woman’s name and, as it was never clear if she was asked by reporters if she wanted her name used, I’m declining that practice and attributing them instead.)
At least these publications were acknowledging it. ESPN didn’t report on the lawsuit for two days. The only exception were Pittsburgh outlets, which were given the green light to discuss one of the most famous football players in the United States being sued as a matter of “local importance.” Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news at the time, told The Times that concerns about damaging the QB’s reputation were not “our only criteria” for ignoring it. The network was cautious because “people have filed civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct, which is among the most serious and damaging charges you can make.”
The Lake Tahoe lawsuit didn’t do much damage to Roethlisberger’s reputation. It was easy to brush it aside, call it just one lawsuit, to see the people defending him and push it out of your mind. Everything went on as normal for the Steelers. There was Roethlisberger, playing every game but one of the 2009-10 season. There was Roethlisberger, having one of his best statistical seasons yet. There was Roethlisberger, getting voted team MVP. I try to look back at that time now and think about if anything felt different, if I had any doubts about the team’s two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback returning and leading the team back to glory. The answer is no.
Then came Milledgeville.
In the early hours of March 5, 2010, Ben Roethlisberger and his entourage were inside the VIP area of Capital City. But this was VIP in a college town, so that meant a back area blocked off with a curtain, access to a private bathroom, and two bouncers told to allow in only certain people. Which, as that tends to imply, meant only young women.
Inside Capital City, the night did not appear to be winding down. Not for Roethlisberger, not for his entourage, which included Steelers lineman Willie Colon as well as two off-duty Pennsylvania police officers, and not for a group of young women who were out that night. One woman recalled to investigators, according to GBI’s case documents, seeing Roethlisberger standing by an L-shaped bar with a line of shots of front of him. “Girls, come here, shots,” she recalled him saying. She also said that she saw Roethlisberger talking to her friend. Then one off-duty officer, who acted as informal bodyguard for the QB, walked up to her friend and guided her to a door, she told GBI. About 30 seconds later, she saw Roethlisberger go through the same door. The woman walked up to the other off-duty officer with Roethlisberger and said, “My friend was taken back there. She doesn’t need to be back there. You need to bring her back up here now,” according to her GBI interview. Another friend tried to open the door, but failed and got kicked out of VIP. A third woman saw this and tried to get the bar manager to do something. He told her that Roethlisberger wouldn’t do anything bad, she told GBI. That would ruin his reputation. (The bar manager confirmed saying this to GBI in his own statement.)
When their friend emerged from the back, a little after Roethlisberger, her two friends got her and took her outside. Pretty soon afterward, she told them that Roethlisberger had followed her into a bathroom, where he sexually assaulted her. The women did everything society likes sexual assault victims to do: They stopped, they flagged down the very first cop they saw, and they told him everything. The officer they first talked to was about to end his shift, so he handed it off to another officer, Sgt. Jerry Blash.
Blash had been among a group of law enforcement officers taking photos with the QB earlier that night, at a different bar. The photos of Blash and Roethlisberger would become public, eventually, via The Union-Recorder. One showed Blash among several people crowded around the star QB, with Roethlisberger putting his arm around Blash. In another photo, it’s just Blash and Roethlisberger. Blash isn’t smiling. Roethlisberger sports a big, goofy grin. In both, Blash is clearly in uniform. In the shot of him and Roethlisberger, you can make out on his sleeve a blurry but recognizable police shield.
Blash would resign before the details of the GBI investigation were announced, but it’s impossible to ignore the influence that Blash’s actions had on the case. That night, Blash did not contain the potential crime scene; other officers took photos of the bathroom but that was it, according to GBI’s review. A janitor would later tell investigators he cleaned the bathroom with Clorox and Pine-Sol the next day because nobody told him not to. Blash, after talking to the women, went back to Capital City and told the two off-duty police officers, a member of Roethlisberger’s management team, and Roethlisberger himself about the investigation and what the woman had said. He purposely wrote a “non-detailed incident report,” according to GBI’s interview with him, because he didn’t want the information becoming public. It’s perhaps best summed up by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that would dub Blash as the QB’s “third ally in blue.” When the woman said she would not cooperate with a prosecution in the case, it was hardly a surprise.
I re-read all these details from the GBI report over the weekend, during Roethlisberger’s last regular-season game, a matchup against the longtime division rival Baltimore Ravens. On my TV there were the expected images of the Steelers in black and gold, the Ravens in purple and black, coach Mike Tomlin on one sideline, coach John Harbaugh on the other. Not much had changed, except for a few of the players, like Ravens starting QB Lamar Jackson being out due to an ankle injury. It all felt familiar to me, expected.
But I could not ignore the familiar feeling of reading the hundreds of pages of the GBI file that remained online, all these years later. I picked through them, the statements from woman after woman about what happened that night, and immediately recognized the details, even if technically I went to college in Florida. The drinking. The Jell-O shots to pregame. The small downtown with all the same bars that everyone goes to, packed into one spot. The fear when you realize one woman from your friend group is missing. The panic when you can’t find her. And the way you never have explain to your friends why you are freaking out and everyone needs to drop what they are doing and start searching, right now, you all just know what’s at stake.
The officer who doesn’t seem too interested in taking a report about sexual assault? I recognized that, too. It’s easy, almost too easy, to “what if?” this case. What if a different officer took the first report, one who hadn’t been taking photos with Roethlisberger? What if the potential crime scene had been closed off? What if the initial officer hadn’t tipped off Roethlisberger or perhaps tried to bring in him and his entourage for questioning? What if-ing history is rarely a fruitful practice, but it’s almost impossible not to do it here because the key to the rest of Roethlisberger’s career, and public life, would undoubtedly benefit from Blash’s actions.
The woman’s friends who talked to Blash that night both recalled Blash making comments about why they shouldn’t file a report. One told GBI, per their documents, that he said, “Roethlisberger has a lot of money and that would be wasting their time.” Another said Blash told them, per GBI’s file: “You can file a statement but this man has a lot of money and good attorneys.” (Blash denied being so blunt in his GBI interview but did concede that he told the woman reporting the sexual assault that Roethlisberger’s lawyers would “tear your story up.”) I’m not so naive as to think there isn’t some truth in what Blash said. Roethlisberger had access to money and lawyers and fame, and that’s always a huge weight in your favor, be it in the criminal justice system or the court of public opinion. This happened within a criminal justice system that has long failed to stop or prevent gender violence. But that does not justify his actions.
(Blash resigned from the Milledgeville force before the case was closed with no charges. However, that did not end his law enforcement career. According to his LinkedIn, he is a major with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. I called his LCSO office and sent him an email but he never replied to my requests for comment.)
When the investigation became news, it became national news, and fast. It was impossible to ignore as a Steelers fan, but even non-football fans knew about the investigation. It was everywhere. Reporters descended on the tiny town about an hour and a half southeast of Atlanta. Like with Lake Tahoe, Roethlisberger’s agent, Ryan Tollner, said in a statement “we are skeptical of motive.” But even the most sycophantic publication couldn’t spin what happened in Milledgeville.
When I heard the story, I swore I would not watch football again. At the very least, I would not watch Steelers football so long as that man was at the helm. I read every story about how fans were angry at him and nodded in agreement. I watched the entire press conference given by the district attorney—who announced he would not charge Roethlisberger but, nonetheless, went through every horrifying detail of the case on national TV, and then near the end told Roethlisberger to “grow up.” I hated everything I heard. I even hated Roethlisberger’s attempt at an apology, a short statement he read from the Steelers’ locker room without taking any questions. That May, SI published a lengthy story not just about what happened in Milledgeville, but about Roethlisberger’s reputation around Pittsburgh for throwing his weight around and walking out on tabs. The story reported that he once made lewd comments at a pregnant waitress, among other examples of loutish behavior.
The only other Steelers quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, called for the Steelers to get rid of Roethlisberger. I agreed.
I told my father this one day, that the Steelers needed to dump Roethlisberger, and he laughed. He told me that I might know a lot of facts, but I did not understand how business works. It was too hard to find a quarterback as good as Roethlisberger. That’s all this was, he told me: business. Roethlisberger would be back. And he was.
What a strange, haunted season it was. The NFL suspended Roethlisberger for six games, then reduced it to four because he seemed contrite enough. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch started those four games for the Steelers and it snapped into sharp focus how much the team missed Roethlisberger’s talents. With Batch at the helm, the Steelers eked out a 15-9 win over the Atlanta Falcons, beat the Tennessee Titans by one touchdown, 19-11, and even had a 38-13 rout over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the fourth game, against those dreaded Ravens, wouldn’t be nearly as lucky. They lost 17-14, the final decisive play coming when Ray Lewis picked off a Batch pass.
You could feel it throughout the fanbase, the anger being shoved aside, the realization that the team needed Roethlisberger to win, the slow calculation of, Well, if he’s punished, then what else can we do? He returned in Week 6, just in time for the team to defeat another rival, the Cleveland Browns. It’s impossible to ignore, looking back at the photos of that game, just how happy Roethlisberger looked. A sign hung from the stadium rotunda: “BEN’S BACK STAY FOCUSED HINESVILLE, GA.”
Did the announcers talk about it? I don’t remember. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they did, but I doubt anyone went into great detail. What mattered was the Steelers kept winning; Roethlisberger played great. They finished at 12-4 and clinched the second seed in the AFC, earning them a precious bye week. After a week of rest, they came back and beat the Ravens and Jets, earning them a slot in the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. It almost felt like a Roethlisberger revenge tour, for all the articles, for all the anger, for all the people who said he was a pain in the ass, for everyone who said he should be dumped. A giant Fuck you, I’ll show you why you need me.
I watched that Super Bowl with my parents. I even bought food and Iron City beer for all of us at Primanti Bros. because I knew it would make my parents happy, and it did. I somehow watched a Super Bowl with my team and rooted for the Steelers to win but also felt OK when they lost. It is easily the least sad I have felt about losing a game. Commissioner Roger Goodell handed Packers QB Aaron Rodgers the Super Bowl trophy and I thought how happy Goodell must be to be handing it to Rodgers and not Roethlisberger. I’m sure Goodell would claim, if asked, he did not care who won that game. But I cannot shake the sense that the NFL avoided a giant catastrophe that night. The narrative prefers a Super Bowl quarterback who overcomes adversity, but Roethlisberger didn’t overcome adversity. He benefited from his wealth, stature, and fame to avoid consequences.
A year later, Roethlisberger got married. In 2013, he settled the Lake Tahoe lawsuit. Someone from his camp told ProFootballTalk that he settled it for “less than a game check,” an impossibly cruel observation that serves only to remind all of us how money and power work.
In the grand scheme of the world, I am insignificant, just one Steelers fan in a mass of millions. I know there are other fans who remain as angry and disgusted with Roethlisberger as I am. There also are the many other fans who long ago moved on, or maybe didn’t even care, and they probably outnumber us, which I suspect has less to do with a type of awful specific to football fans and more to do with our broader cultural norms around gender violence.
The official narrative is that Roethlisberger got better; he grew up. He got married. He had children. He hasn’t been investigated by the police again. (This has not meant he became a paragon of leadership; former teammate Josh Harris claimed Roethlisberger once fumbled the ball on purpose because he didn’t like a play call. His Twitter account blocked anyone who said anything negative about him. It also has not stopped stories from coming out about his prior behavior, like Stormy Daniels saying that back in 2006 he “terrified” her when they met, through Donald Trump, in Lake Tahoe.) Maybe he’s reformed and maybe he isn’t; the truth is I have no way of knowing, which is perhaps the most difficult part of being a sports fan. We are told these athletes are heroes, icons, legends, people we can learn lessons from. But we don’t know them at all. All we know is one sliver of them: how they perform on the field that day. The rest is a mystery, filled in with narratives that writers, TV producers, and our own brains impose. The information my decision should hinge on—did he learn, did he change?—is impossible for me to know.
I thought about getting a new team, but not seriously. It’s not like any other NFL owners would have handled Roethlisberger much differently. I do care less than before. I don’t have anything with Roethlisberger’s name or number on it. I’ve never been to a Steelers game in person. I don’t think the Rooney family are gods; they’re just millionaires trying to maintain their millions, and how they handled Roethlisberger in 2009 and 2010 is as much a part of the family legacy as the Rooney Rule.
But anyone who has watched a football game with me knows that I still care about the team. I still want them to win, for all the other players on the roster, for my parents, and also for me because, after all these years, it still makes me feel good. Though if they get the win and Roethlisberger gets sacked five times in the process, well, that doesn’t bother me too much. I did not want to give up the community, the identity, I had found through the Steelers, at least not completely. For the past several years, as Roethlisberger has lurched toward retirement—his big yet mobile body losing all its mobility and becoming only big, his wild passes turning receivers into ball wranglers—my husband has suggested that when he retires, perhaps I can like my team more.
In a way, my relationship with the Steelers settled into one that I have with a lot of private institutions that feel like they provide a public service: your grocery store, your pharmacy, your local newspaper. Dear God, do I want the Steelers to be better. I want the NFL to be better. I want sports to be better. I want a lot things that bring me joy or feel vital to my life to be better but, if I focus too much on everything that I wish were better but I cannot fix, the dread will overtake me. For now, mostly, I wish fans were better. My stomach churns every time I see a sign that says, “Thank you, Ben.”
But I want to remember. Some people watch football and take from it stories of heroic men overcoming the odds, of brilliant coaches making all the right moves, of organizations making the world a better place. Every time I watch a Steelers game, I have to remember why Roethlisberger is there. Because a police officer couldn’t be bothered to secure a crime scene for a sexual-assault report. Because there is only hell to pay for anyone who speaks up against a powerful person, especially a famous athlete, who will deploy their army of lawyers and managers and fellow famous friends against you. I have to remember that the value of a very important man to a very important organization will still trump the worries about the damage he’s done and the people he has hurt. That, along with all the football, is just as much a part of Ben Roethlisberger’s legacy. It hangs side by side with all the good football memories, a pair of paintings side by side, and you can’t understand one without understanding the other.